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Empathetic: To Be, Or Not To Be?

In an earlier post titled, “Empathy, Kindness, and Maturity,” I heaped praise on empathy.

There I spoke about a dog who had recently passed away, and how my empathy helped the owner through his anguish. Further, I presented arguments that empathy motivates individual behavior that aids in solving communal challenges.

Since writing that post, I learned of a study by Sidney Blatt and his colleagues based on data from the large NIMH Depression Collaboration Project. These researchers found that the most effective practitioners shared the following qualities; being perceived by pateints as more caring, empathetic, and sincere then the less effective practitioners.

So, to me, empathy is a pretty good thing–I mean, what’s not to like?

Well, Paul Bloom, psychologist and Yale professor, recently has argued in a piece titled, “Against Empathy,” that it’s a bad thing—that it makes the world worse. Is he kidding me?

The Case Against Empathy

Dr. Bloom tells us that while we’ve been taught that putting yourself in another’s shoes cultivates compassion, it actually blinds you to the long-term consequences of your actions.

In defending his position, Dr. Bloom tells us about the warm glow that many get when they give to charity.

“So, what they do when they give, is to give to a lot of different charities, and give a little bit of money to each one because for each one they get a little rush–‘Oh, I’m helping the blind babies. Oh, I’m helping the farm workers. Oh, I’m helping the chickens.’ The problem is that when you give a small amount of dollars to a charity, often it doesn’t do much good because the dollars they need to process your donation, in some cases, actually ends up with the charity taking a loss on your donation.” 

In addition to the charity example, Dr. Bloom tells us:

“Empathy’s engagement, being caught up in the suffering of victims, is usually the number one argument in a democratic country for going to war…. If we ever go to war against ISIS, a full blown military war, it will be motivated by our feelings for the suffering of their victims. But that’s just one consideration. Other considerations are, how many people will die in the war? How many other victims will the war create? But our empathy, our selfish moralizing, zooms us in and says, ‘Oh, my God, there are these people who are suffering, let’s bomb the crap out of them; Let’s destroy the whole country to save these people.’ And then people are later surprised that apparently we killed, you know, we killed 50 thousand people. Gosh, who would have known?”

Is Dr. Bloom Right?

It seems to me that the good professor confounds in his argument the experience of empathy with what one chooses to do when experiencing empathy. Yes, in some situations in which we experience empathy we could choose to take actions that in the long run causes more harm then good, but in other situations we act in enormously helpful ways.

When we choose to try to help a person or group for whom we have empathy, this is called altruism if it is not motivated chiefly by self-gain. In natural settings, altruism has been clearly observed in human beings during disasters and the almost universal protection of parents of their offspring.

Consistent with Dr. Bloom’s position, there is some evidence available that indicates that sometimes people will, upon experiencing empathy, act altruistic without much thought to the consequences. For example, in a study carried out by C. H. Fellner and J. R. Marshall, these researchers found that some kidney donors told them that they had silently made up their minds about the “right thing to do” as soon as they were asked to consider whether they would be willing to make the sacrifice to save the life of a member of their family. These donors reported that they were not really very curious about, or interested, in what the doctors were telling them. They appeared to have applied a simple moral decision rule as soon as they realized what the physician was driving at.

This type of evidence is far from conclusive because the donors may have retrospectively distorted their accounts to present themselves in a favorable light. However, a number of other studies (see HERE and HERE) has led me to support the hypothesis that there are indeed times when people do make moral decisions without much careful thought. That said, I believe that in most situations that require some significant physical and material cost (e.g., exertion, time loss) such costs do influence helping decisions (see Black, Weinstein, and Tanur for a review of this research evidence).

I think that Dr. Bloom’s real worthwhile point is not that empathy is bad, but rather, when we experience empathy we should be careful. If our empathy seems to be urging us to be helpful in some way, we would be wise to indeed consider the long term, as well as short term consequences of our actions. This, in truth, is how all of our decisions are best made.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their stress management skills and their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

 

 

From Psychiatric Name Calling to Plain, Humane English
Developing Empathy Through Literature

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

4 Comments

  1. I support your earlier proposition that the empathy trait is good. As the dictum asserts, “you should not judge a man, until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” Of course, there are limitations but to understand another’s circumstances requires reflection. Further, callousness towards his behavior is inhuman yet legal codes tell us what our society’s parameters (read, “limits”) are. These too are not “etched in stone” as our species progresses and evolves. Our actions must be ruled by reason rather than impetuousness and the law of “eye for an eye” (“title for tat”), although invokable as a strategies during extreme circumstances, cannot be our guiding moral imperative. Understanding our fellow man provides us with a more effective tool to bringing about a resolution to his conflict(s).

    • Hi Bill Adams.
      In most ways I like the way you are thinking about this issue. I do wonder about your support for the “eye for an eye” saying. I like Gandhi’s response to that notion, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

  2. Half 2014 I received news that my uncle in Poland was diagnosed with leukemia and as we drifted towards the end of the year it became clear he would not live much longer. I stumbled upon a charity in my country that legally provided people with Cannabis-oil (a well known treatment against cancer). It was however a bit expensive and I didn’t have much money on the bank. I chose to buy a 3 month supply of the oil of which I had calculated every drop he would need. The buying was the easy part but the voyage to Warsaw a little more difficult since at that time medicinal-cannabis-oil had to have been requested by my uncle’s doctor in Poland after which I could arrange the documents and ship the mini-bottles to him. Since time was of the essence and the legal-trajectory would take about 3 months (which in my mind would be around his death) so I decided to bring it (smuggle it) by train from Amsterdam to Warsaw with the danger of getting caught and consequently ending up in prison (Polish Prison !!) As I was preparing for the journey I realized that I couldn’t take any amphetamine (speed) with me for that would be an overkill if I got caught. I scraped the last few legal dex-amphetamine prescribed pills in a little canister and stepped on the train.
    All went well and I only got reprimanded for smoking a cigarette outside the train at the border-stop (pfffieuw). Within a month my uncles cancer-digit went from above 200 to below 100 and in the last week of 2014 he got news that since he was so healthy he could get an transplant a few weeks later. As the months progressed and my bank-savings were depleted I asked my uncle for money and he payed me back almost every euro (I took care of the difference and the round-trip-ticket by train).
    But what baffles me to this day is 1] that my family-members didn’t buy more cannabis-oil after 3 months and 2] that my uncle never said “thank you” (he said it when I delivered the bottles and he agreed that I buy the bottles (which is as much as saying :”I believe in your (mine) solution) but in the next 1½ year he didn’t utter 1 TY).
    My uncle died in may 2016 and I’m happy that he saw his son going for his exams in good spirit and lived another Christmas in 2015.
    NB. I bought his son a 2¼” portable-hard-disk which I filled with all kinds of POLISH-stuff I downloaded from the web (I don’t speak very good polish) including a scholar-type-textbook from the engineering study he passed the exams for. Also I put the whole discography of DJ TIESTO on this hard-disk and he went to ‘raves’ outside of Poland, so much he got hooked on the house-beats 🙂
    So, I put a lot of effort into my uncle and his son (buying the oil & hard-disk) but also all the effort in bringing it an weeks of surfing the web using Polish-search-engines etc. etc. Earlier in the year 2014 I bought my uncle 10 very expensive cannabis-seeds which my sister smuggled to him when she visited him but the process of growing-plants and distilling the oil was too risque for getting caught. That’s why I upped my plan and searched for the oil online.
    All in All , it was worth it, the stress of getting caught with 20 bottles (10ml) and presumably spending a few months or years in a Polish-Prison, the week I stayed in Warsaw without my precious-daily-amphetamine-dose and the lack of feedback from my uncle and my family for prolonging his life wit 1½ years (with good quality of living !)
    When I started my quest to help my uncle I didn’t know all the troubles I would get into but even in hen-sight I say it was worth it… but I’m the only one saying it cause nobody else say so… may be in their thoughts they praise me, may be…..

    • I gave the hard-disk to my nephew on Christmas 2010.
      And the whole of 2014 I was addicted to speed (amphetamine) not crack ! just the white stuff which you sniff but I put it in daily-capsules of 0,6gram – kind of self medication.

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